The votes that really count are in, and the winner is MayorSam.com. In a special election next week, San Fernando Valley voters will choose from 10 candidates, two of whom are expected to face each other in a December runoff for Los Angeles City Council District 2. But perhaps a more lasting result of this hotly battled race, whose winner will enjoy fiefdomlike powers over development and land use in much of the Valley, has been the near-absence of media, who abdicated covering their own backyards, and the entry into that news vacuum by blogs.
“I read MayorSam every day,” says Jozef Essavi, a 35-year-old real estate broker running for the powerful City Council seat left vacant by Wendy Greuel, who was elected in March as city controller. “The blogs have easily had the best coverage of this race.”
Other candidates agree.
“I look at MayorSam and some other blogs most days,” says Valley Village activist Pete Sanchez, 46, who is also vying for the council opening. “It’s different from reading the papers. . When I read the blogs, I have to remember the writer has a favorite candidate and it’s seeping into the coverage.”
The political blogs are even sparking cyber-gossip.
“I got a call from someone saying the blogs are buzzing that Zuma Dogg dissed [me], saying, ‘How dare Mary Benson refer to me as living in a cardboard box?’ ” says Mary Benson, a 61-year-old community activist from Shadow Hills. “So now, I’m reading the blogs.”
In addition to MayorSam, edited by Michael Higby and widely read by civic activists, neighborhood groups, interested voters and other media, there’s extensive coverage in blog posts at RonKayeLA.com, Village to Village at phinvv.wordpress.com and cd2election.blogspot.com. Collectively, they are part of a sea of change: News about a significant city race whose outcome could alter the 15-member City Council, by ushering in an activist not beholden to big business or big labor, is being dominated by bloggers like former Valley newspaper executive Ron Kaye and certified public accountant Paul Hatfield, of Village to Village.
They and others have set the tone, raised the key questions and demanded answers — formerly the roles of L.A.’s now-disinterested major media.
The Times has written only four stories on the special election, most of them lacking any serious meat. Then, last Saturday, the paper issued its opinion-page endorsement of a well-funded carpetbagger candidate, Christine Essel, who moved to Council District 2 and into the Valley solely to run for the lucrative $178,789-a-year job.
The Daily News has published about a dozen stories, most of them short, devoid of key issues and showing very little interest in the several respected Valley activists who are running. Three weeks ago, the Daily News opinion pages endorsed two candidates from the activist side, Tamar Galatzan and Pete Sanchez, and rejected the two monied carpetbaggers, Essel, and Burbank politician Paul Krekorian, who also moved into CD 2 solely to run for the powerful Los Angeles political post.
The campaign stories unfolding in this special election, such as an unsuccessful drive among some Valley groups to unite behind one of the eight grass-roots candidates in order to stop Essel and Krekorian, were first framed by bloggers, not newspapers. Those and other issues were later picked up by L.A. Weekly and other major papers, all of which have been hit by staff cuts while the local political blogs are slowly adding contributors, often unpaid.
For the candidates, it’s been a long, hot summer of in-your-face radio debates, meet-the-candidate forums, daily blog analyses of their performances at those debates and forums, and lots of comment-thread trash talk on the blogs between the candidates’ supporters and critics.
“At first, I was scared to go on the blogs,” admits CD 2 candidate Tamar Galatzan, of Studio City, a member of the elected LAUSD Board of Education. “But the blogs have been kinder to me than I expected.”
The hyperlocal campaigning and digital digging — the blogs even reported that wild-card candidate and sometimes homeless van dweller Zuma Dogg (David Saltsburg) had declared his official residence as the corner of Victory and Laurel Canyon boulevards — have separated the 10 candidates into two distinct groups: seven or eight Valley civic activists in one, two or three special-interest outsiders in the other.
Some see the math as eight Valley civic activists versus two carpetbagger candidates backed by big special interests, counting school board member Galatzan as the eighth activist, since she’s getting a lot less cash than Krekorian from old-school Democratic Party insiders, labor unions and other big special-interest groups. Those groups went big for Burbank lawyer Krekorian, who has a long history of flitting from one political post to another before his term is up, and who now hopes to bolt from Sacramento just six months after his re-election to state Assembly. (Much of the money from the downtown-developer, Chamber-of-Commerce, big-business crowd went to well-to-do Westsider Essel.)
Others count seven activists versus three, lumping Galatzan in with carpetbaggers Krekorian and Essel. “There’s the Machine Three: Krekorian, Essel and Galatzan, and there’s the rest of us, the Grass-roots Seven,” says Frank Sheftel of North Hollywood, a 48-year-old Valley resident and custom chocolate purveyor.
But it says something about this race, and how much it is worrying City Hall, that an elected school board member like Galatzan openly prefers to be counted as part of the Grass-roots Eight, with people like Zuma Dogg, rather than as part of the Machine Two, with Krekorian and Essel.
Civic activists generally do not win City Council seats in L.A. The often quietly handpicked candidates with deep pockets behind them tend to win. But neighborhood activists like Michael McCue have watched as the City Council and Antonio Villaraigosa ignored Valley infrastructure year after year during flush times, spending the city’s new revenues on pet projects and failing to save for a rainy day — and then the recession hit. Now, 90-year-old water mains are creating sinkholes. As McCue told an appreciative audience Monday, fed-up residents need to “elect one of our own.”
One of those pet projects now being floated by speculators and downtown insiders would vastly expand the Fashion Square Mall in Sherman Oaks, where Bloomingdale’s is located. The expansion was derided at the Sherman Oaks forum, with McCue crying out: “Infrastructure first!”
One widely suspected cause of the City Council’s isolation: its members’ $178,789 salaries, which make them the highest-paid city council in the U.S. by far, placing them at 400 percent of L.A. household income. The winner of this election will rake in more than $2.5 million if that person serves the full 12 years allowed under term limits, which were watered down in 2006.
As the Weekly reported in its February cover story, “Los Angeles on $300,000 a year,” each council member also gets a huge personal staff of 17 to 25 employees, an annual pot of $100,000 to dole out as each wishes, exemption from parking tickets, eight free cars each, and free gas — all taxpayer-covered perks. Despite all this, council rarely succeeds at addressing the city’s pressing problems, such as illegal billboards, traffic and the explosion of hundreds of unvetted, unregulated pot dispensaries near public schools.
At Monday’s debate, Zuma Dogg proposed eliminating entire city departments if they don’t deliver critical municipal services, and he pushed for 10 percent cuts in compensation for city workers in order to make up a huge deficit that the council has failed to resolve. He says mass layoffs could result if the council doesn’t cut now, warning, “Ten percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.”
Each of the 10 candidates has been pressed about whether they’ll take a 50 percent pay cut, reducing their pay to about $90,000, if elected, and San Pedro–based activists are organizing an effort to let voters make such a cut permanent via the ballot box.
Galatzan, one of only two CD 2 candidates to oppose the 50 percent–cut idea, concedes that the raise she’d get from her current school board post — which pays just $25,000 — is one factor in her decision to run. She pledges to take an immediate pay cut of 20 percent to 30 percent and to continue her policy of not using a government car if elected to City Council. (In her day job as a neighborhood prosecutor, Galatzan works with petty criminals, transients, belligerent dogs and illegal RV parkers, and, she says, “There’s nothing wrong with my 2006 Honda Civic hybrid.”)
The Grass-roots Seven (or Eight) are raising the possibility that one or even two of them could survive the September 22 special election. If no single candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote next week, the top two of the 10 will face each other in December.
“The ones who raise the most money are not the ones who will get the most votes,” says candidate Benson, who started her own computer business and raised two kids, then discovered a new calling when she fought to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from dumping “bad stuff” at Hanson Dam. Benson, a calm, popular figure in Sunland-Tujunga, was also part of a boisterous community victory that stopped a proposed big-box Home Depot there. “I know how to get things done, how to get past the bureaucratic hurdles,” she says.
At a forum Monday sponsored by the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, Benson, McCue and Sanchez each said they had enough momentum to offset the big money behind Essel and Krekorian. They, Zuma Dogg, Sheftel and other candidates note that the Valley is a petri dish of civic rebellion, an incubator that created the Valley Secession movement more than a decade ago. San Fernando Valley residents played the key role in forcing city fathers to create the Neighborhood Council system, and Valley voters recently helped to sink controversial solar Measure B and elect underdog outsider Carmen Trutanich as Los Angeles city attorney.
Several of the CD 2 candidates emerged from the Neighborhood Council system, where they have worked to protect neighborhoods from overdevelopment and are now comfortable questioning in detail the distant and, in their minds, often inept city bureaucracy.
Sanchez, a claims-audit manager for an insurance company, is determined to make City Hall confront its $500 million deficit — and its jaw-dropping current overspending of about $1 million a day, as estimated by City Councilman Bernard Parks. “The city is on the verge of bankruptcy,” Sanchez says. “If we don’t start taking serious measures to deal with this problem, we will soon be bankrupt.”
After a classic closing rant delivered Monday night by an apocalyptic but crowd-pleasing Zuma Dogg, McCue joined in the spirit by loudly denouncing Essel, Krekorian and Galatzan as machine candidates.
“I think it’s the most important election in recent Valley history,” McCue said. “We’ve got to stop this power play by the mayor. The most recent polling shows that over half the voters have still not made up their minds. . I think that’s because they’re looking for the courage to go with someone completely different, a grass-roots candidate who is not part of the big-money game.”
It’s a highly local election for a plum post. The winner will have broad powers to oversee land development, and thus alter the quality of life in a big swath of the San Fernando Valley.
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CORRECTION: THE PRINT VERSION OF THIS STORY MISIDENTIFIED DAVID SALTSBURG AS DAVID SALTSMAN. WE REGRET THE ERROR.